Opinion: Cannabis advocates praise billion-dollar market, but seem wary of big business

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Cannabis brings big money to those U.S. states willing to legalize. This is the message marijuana advocates have been preaching for years, and they take every opportunity to praise it as a selling point.

Some of the latest numbers prove that the sale of cannabis products is poised to become one of the largest, tax-generating inebriation markets in the U.S.

A new study from the Marijuana Policy Project finds that aboutb US$7.9 billion in tax revenue has been made from pot sales since 2014. At the same time, local governments benefited to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In other words, if states need a new revenue stream, legal weed is the ticket.

Although the amount of money spent on cannabis in the U.S. is impressive, why do advocates act so surprised when they see reports that continue to show an uprising of pot profits with each passing year? Of course, marijuana is selling like mad.

Cannabis is now legal in more than half of the U.S. for various reasons, with 17 of those states allowing it to be sold like beer. People no longer need to frequent the black market to buy weed — although many still do — creating a situation where the cash that was once spent on illegal sources has gone legit.

There’s also the novelty factor associated with the cannabis market. People who may have never used marijuana before (or those who tried it in their youth) are gravitating toward the legal weed scene because it humours them to some degree and there’s little to no risk involved.

They are interested in being “bad” without a brush with the law. They seem to want to hang with the cool kids.

Studies show that more people try weed for the first time when it is legal. Canada saw a massive uptick in first-time cannabis users after it launched its legal recreational market a few years back.

Studies show that more people try weed for the first time when it is legal. /

Studies show that more people try weed for the first time when it is legal. / PHOTO BY TEOLAZAREV / ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS

“One of the things… unique with this survey is the number of respondents who said they’re using for the first time,” Michelle Rotermann, a senior analyst at Statistics Canada’s health analysis division, toldCBC News in 2019. “So, they started, in this case, in the post-legalization period.”

More users equals more money.

But a funny thing started happening to weed several years ago. The alcohol and tobacco industries began “watching it closely.” Some of these companies even invested loads of money to participate.

Beverage companies such as Constellation Brands, which makes Corona and Modelo, invested billions of dollars to get in on the ground floor of ganja. Meanwhile, Molson Coors, Anheuser-Busch and the Boston Beer Company also made moves. Imperial Brands, the makers of Kool and Winston cigarette brands, jumped in as well.

Most recently, Marlboro-maker Philip Morris reported it is watching the pot market to see where it fits in. These large corporations with deep, deep pockets are dabbling in cannabis in preparation for when the U.S. federal government finally legalizes the plant. And that’s something that could conceivably happen in the next few years.

Senate Democrats are going to try to legalize marijuana at the national level this year. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has plans to reveal a comprehensive cannabis reform bill “soon.” Federal legalization is so close, in fact, that the alcohol and tobacco industries have formed a national lobbying group to influence pot policy changes at the federal level.

Beverage companies such as Constellation Brands invested billions of dollars to get in on the ground floor of ganja. /

Beverage companies such as Constellation Brands invested billions of dollars to get in on the ground floor of ganja. / PHOTO BY MARIANVEJCIK / ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS

It’s a development that seems to have the cannabis folks spooked. After spending years touting weed’s substantial revenue potential, cannabis advocates now want legalization to happen sans capitalism.

“It’s a false dichotomy to suggest our only two choices are to keep incarcerating people for marijuana or to immediately roll out a red carpet for national big businesses to take over the market,” wrote Shaleen Title, vice chair of the Cannabis Regulators of Color Coalition and distinguished practitioner in residence at Ohio State University’s Drug Policy and Enforcement Center.

Interestingly, restricting the alcohol and tobacco industries from participating in cannabis is precisely what Schumer wants to do. He made this clear when he announced how cannabis reform was a Democratic priority.

But, now, instead of pushing Congress to establish a taxed and regulated national market, advocates want representatives to slow down and let states figure out the best way forward. “Lawmakers should give states the time they need to implement equitable policies and prevent market domination by Big Tobacco and other bad actors in the meantime,” Title asserts.

It remains to be seen how Schumer plans to legalize cannabis federally without allowing some good ol’ fashioned capitalistic carnage to take shape. Although the weed scene is split between those who want justice for decades of brutal drug war tactics and those who just want to sell marijuana and relish in profits, it seems unlikely that pot will get out alive without being exploited just like alcohol and tobacco. It seems even less likely that the cannabis industry will make it another 20 years without big corporations swooping in and swallowing it whole.

I suppose this should be a lesson in “be careful what you ask for.” Weed is going legal, and the design will likely mimic the big money ideas that the cannabis advocacy community has been selling for decades.

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